3.1008 why telnet to other libraries? (136)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Mon, 5 Feb 90 20:59:40 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 1008. Monday, 5 Feb 1990.

Date: 3 February 1990 10:18:32 CST
From: "M. R. Sperberg-McQueen " <U15440@UICVM>
Subject: Why do you want telnet access to library catalogues?

Perhaps I should direct the following question directly
to Bill Ball or to Jim O'Donnell, but perhaps other
members of Humanist will have responses to it as well.

Why does one want telnet access to online catalogues
at other universities?

I'm assuming--perhaps incorrectly--that these other
universities are ones at which one does not have
borrowing privileges, except through one's inter-library
loan service.

My question is in part motivated by genuine curiosity,
but there is also a bit more to it than that:

When I was a graduate student, I looked in my
university's card catalogue to determine whether the
book I needed was immediately available. If it wasn't,
I filled out an interlibrary loan form, indicating the
source for my bibliographic reference, turned in said
form, and generally received the item in question in due

AACR2, the computer cataloguing of library holdings, and
the public accessibility of said computerized catalogues
has made what was a simple process in the halcyon days
of 1975-81 when I was a grad student into an ordeal.

My university library's card catalogue was closed off
due to AACR2--and has not, of course, been entirely
retrospectively converted to electronic form. Thus, as
a minimum, I must now check both the card catalogue and
our computerized catalogue to determine whether our
library holds a given work.

If it does not, I must then search another computerized
catalogue to determine whether any library in my state
library system holds the item. The state-wide holdings
are in two separate databases, both of which must be
searched, and the search commands for the two databases
are different one from the other and from the search
commands used for searching my own library's
computerized catalogue. The search commands for one of
these in particular are so far from being friendly that
I think "hostile" not an inappropriate epithet.

Should it turn out that I cannot find the item in the
state, I must them search the OCLC catalogue to see if
an OCLC member holds the item and to extract the OCLC
number for my interlibrary loan department. (Another
set of unfriendly commands.)

If I strike out there, I must go to the NUC.

After all this, the last thing I want is to be able to
search other libraries' holdings on line.

Yes, the ideal solution would be to have an interlibrary
loan department that would do all this for you.
Probably part of the reason mine doesn't offer such a
service is that they lack sufficient staff (i.e., we're
underfunded, and who isn't). But I suspect that there's
another reason: I suspect that librarians have decided
that having catalogues on line is wonderful and a
blessing and a solution to all problems. They think
they're doing users a service by making them available.
And they think that on-line catalogues are so much
better than card catalogues that they manage to overlook
the fact that they are not always easy to use, that
multiple databases with multiple search routines make
the locating of an item a time consuming and often
irritating task.

Should we go back to card catalogues? Sometimes I wish
we could: there's something very reassuring about their
tangibility-- and the fact that they don't go "down."
But no librarian I have ever spoken to seems to share my
affection for card catalogues, so I guess that's out of
the question. (I have also been bombarded with figures
proving how expensive they are to maintain.) But at the
very least I wish librarians would show a little more
understanding for the fact that on-line catalogues are
not immediate nirvana, and that they would agitate for
more support for them and the users rather than simply
presenting them to users and then leaving us on our own.
It's wonderful that one can search so many databases.
But I wish that libraries saw locating needed items for
their users as one of the basic services they can offer
their users (as, clearly, the interlibrary loan dept. at
my grad. school did) rather than assuming that by giving
us some tools they had relieved themselves of the responsibility
for that service.

I should hasten to add that the librarians at my
university library are absolutely tops: when I ask for
help with a search, they bend over backwards to
assist--I never cease to be amazed at how willing they
are to help one with one's work. The problem I seem to
be carrying on about is, I think, at another level:
while the persistent and pesky individual user can ask
for and get help, there's no general procedure in place
to assist those who are unwilling to pester the
reference librarians or who lose heart earlier or who
simply don't know how forthcoming the librarians are.
And the user who like myself is willing to ask for help
on a case by case basis uses/loses/wastes a lot of time
in the process of asking for help for those many
individual cases.

This has turned into quite a little diatribe. But to
return to the original question: I am genuinely curious
what people are looking for when they want telnet access
to other libraries. Do they simply want to verify the
availability of an item? Are they hoping to find items
they don't know of otherwise? (Which would, I assume,
require that the catalogue in question had decent
facilities for subject searching.) Are they trying to
confirm the accuracy of a reference? (Which would
assume that looking at a database entry is as good as
autopsy--which is demonstrably not the case.)

--Marian Sperberg-McQueen
University of Illinois at Chicago